DHEC forms taskforce to study splitting health and environment duties | News

COLUMBIA — The state’s public health and environmental agency has convened a task force to study whether those two missions should be split apart, and how the process would work. 

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has nearly 4,000 employees and a wide range of responsibilities, from disease control to approving new hospitals to pollution management. It even handles some development permits at the coast. There have been several past proposals to reorganize or split the behemoth, but legislation spearheaded this year by state Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, has garnered the most significant momentum in years. 

But now, the agency itself has convened a 51-member task force to bring proposals to DHEC’s boards and, eventually, the state Legislature. Its membership draws from current DHEC leadership, interest groups and private industry representatives from three categories: healthcare, environment and mental health. The reorganization bill suggests combining a separate mental health agency and substance abuse agency with public health, if DHEC is separated. 

“The approach of Senate bill 2 makes sense in many ways,” DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer said at the group’s opening meeting on June 3. “On the other hand, I have seen that there are … ways that having environmental support and healthcare under the same roof makes a lot of sense.”

He also referenced the fact that environmental staff have supported the state’s efforts to manage the coronavirus pandemic. The Post and Courier reported in May that hundreds of environmental employees had devoted time, some of which was unpaid, to clerical duties or tasks like driving around scarce doses of medicine.

DHEC spent $3.3M in overtime fighting COVID-19 — including on environmental side

The taskforce is led by former long-time state GOP Sen. Larry Martin, who represented Pickens County for 36 years, the first 14 in the House. Martin also worked at Alice Manufacturing, a textiles firm, but retired when the company’s last plant closed three years ago. 

The former Senate Judiciary chairman has mostly stayed out of public life since he was ousted in a GOP primary in 2016. “I’m far enough removed from it that I’m not actively involved in partisan efforts anymore,” he said in a June 4 interview. 

Simmer called him directly to ask that he take the helm. The position, like all other spots on the task force, is volunteer-only and unpaid.

“I was very impressed with his approach of not having a closed mind to whatever the group proposes,” Martin said of Simmer.

The group will meet multiple times over the summer and has a Nov. 10 deadline to present proposals to DHEC’s board. 

Martin urged that the task force was not meant “to circle the wagons and attempt to justify keeping the status quo but to really, seriously, look at whether or not the agency’s functions can be bifurcated in different areas and still better serve the people of South Carolina.”

As proposal to split DHEC gains steam, some worry about damaging environmental protection

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.